Best Things to do in San Diego in 3 Days – An Itinerary

The post was written by Rebecca

If you are looking for the best way to spend 3 days in San Diego, then this post will help. Here are the best things to do in San Diego in 3 days, where to go and what to see. It also has some travel tips to make your own San Diego itinerary even better.

San Diego is one of the most popular vacation destinations in the US on the west coast. Although it is not as well-known as Los Angeles or San Francisco, it is still a great choice for a trip at any time of the year. With great weather and lots of beaches, museums, and parks, this city has something to please everyone – families, couples, or solo travelers.

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SAN DIEGO TRAVEL TIPS

How to Get to San Diego

You can fly into San Diego International Airport, and from there take a taxi or rental car to your hotel. If you are driving in from the north, take Highway 101, aka the Pacific Coast Highway. And from the east, take Interstate 15. 

Once you arrive, you can take a bus to from Terminal 1, a tram, or a taxi to your hotel. There is also a shuttle service. The best option will depend on the location of your hotel.

Weather in San Diego

The weather is San Diego is really nice, year round. Summer temperatures range from 67ºF-77ºF, and winters are from 49ºF to 66ºF. The rainy season is from December until March. Generally, I have found that the mornings feel a little chilly, but once the sun is out in force, everything warms up quickly.

What to Pack for a San Diego Trip

Since San Diego has pretty mild weather normally, you can pack pretty much the same all year. During the summer months, take some sandals, shorts, and t-shirts with you for the warmer afternoons, but make sure you have a jacket, just in case you’re out at night.

For winter, sneakers and boots, pants and long-sleeved shirts are great, but be prepared for warm-ish afternoons and colder evenings. Also, there’s nothing more chilling than a cold rain, so pack a coat in case you run into a storm.

Where to Stay in San Diego

There are so many hotels in San Diego, not to mention the little neighborhoods throughout the area, like La Jolla. I would suggest taking a hotel in the downtown area or in La Jolla, which has great ocean views. Or, if you don’t mind the move, take one night in each!

If you aren’t too particular about the amenities or views, you can also stay at one of the many chain hotels clustered together off Interstate 8, known as “Hotel Circle.”

For a luxury option, I suggest the Pendry Hotel downtown, which has great amenities and service, or the Pantai Inn in La Jolla, which offers a boutique experience and great location.

For a mid-range hotel, try the San Diego Marriot Gaslamp Quarter in the downtown area, which has a good location, or the Hotel La Jolla, which has pretty balcony views.

For a budget option, you could stay at Holiday Inn Express – Downtown San Diego, which includes breakfast, or the La Jolla Cove Suites, which has vintage décor and good location. 

Note that most of the hotels are more expensive in La Jolla than in San Diego proper, so just keep that in mind as you are booking.

San Diego, California, USA downtown city skyline
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How to Get Around San Diego

San Diego has public transportation throughout the city, including buses, trains, trolleys, ferries, and taxis, not to mention Uber. So, for the popular attractions and within the downtown area, you can get along fine with these.

There’s even a ferry that will take you across the bay to Coronado. 

But when it comes to visiting La Jolla, Legoland, and other things that are farther, I suggest renting a car. The added bonus is that you can drive down scenic coastal routes, like the Pacific Coast Highway, which starts in San Diego and follows the ocean all the way to Oregon.

Travel Tips

If you plan to stop at a lot of the main attractions during your 3-day San Diego itinerary, such as the Air & Space Museum, Legoland, and Belmont Park (and others mentioned in this post), then I suggest getting the Go San Diego Pass. You can get one for just 3 days and it will save you money on entrance fees.

Travel can get pretty bad, especially on Interstate 5. To avoid this, there may be times when public transportation is the way to go. Look into trolley, train, and bus schedules to save you time and frustration.

Day trips to Tijuana are very common since San Diego sits right on the US-Mexico border. To make it fun, do a little research on where to go when south of the border. Also note that while the drinking age for alcohol is 21 in the US, it is 18 in Mexico.

The hotel tax in San Diego is 10.5%, and 12.5% for larger hotels with 70+ rooms. So, don’t be surprised if you see this added to your bill. 

Avoid visiting during the giant Comic-Con convention, unless you’re attending. The city hosts about 150,000 attendees and hotel room rates are super high and sell out fast. It’s usually at the end of July each year.

Day 1 in San Diego

Balboa Park

Balboa Park is a must on any 3-day itinerary in San Diego. Encompassing 1200 acres, this park is more than a park and has something to offer every visitor. 

San Diego's Balboa Park in San Diego California USA
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Botanical House

Gardens dot the park, so you can enjoy beautiful greenery wherever you are.

Balboa park Botanical building and pond San Diego, California USA
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Enjoy breakfast on a bench among the 350 plant species so you can get an early start on your first day in San Diego. Stop by the Botanical House, which has a pond in front with lilies and lotuses.

From here, head to one (or all) of the museums that are housed within Balboa Park.

San Diego Museum of Art

If you like art, stop at the San Diego Museum of Art located within the park. It specializes in Spanish Renaissance (even the architecture is done in this style) and Baroque paintings.

Check their website to see what programs are running for fun cocktail events, film screenings, and activities for the kids.

San Diego Natural History Museum

If you’re traveling with kids, this will be a good stop within the park. Examine fossils, explore different ecosystems, and see 3D displays that bring the Ice Age to life.

Even adults will find the exhibits fun and interesting. 

San Diego Air & Space Museum

This museum is an homage to the evolution of human flight.

You’ll find reproductions of the Wright Brothers’ glider from the first flight ever, and artifacts from Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh. Flight simulators are really cool for the adults, and if you’re traveling with a family, the Action Hangar is set up as a play area for kids.

If you’ve had your fill of museums, stroll over to the next landmark in Balboa Park.

Old Globe Theater

This theatre was built as part of an expo in 1935 and is a replica of the original in England where Shakespeare’s plays were performed. It has three stages, and one is outdoors.

San Diego Balboa Park Old Globe Theater
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If you’re in the mood for a play, check the schedule. There are usually two performances a day and three on the weekends. Or, just wander around and take in the architecture and atmosphere of this Tony-award winning institution.

And now it’s time to leave Balboa Park for the beautiful island of Coronado. This stop at Balboa Park should have taken about 3-4 hours, depending on how many museums you visited.

Coronado

Coronado is located on the peninsula of San Diego Bay. Famous for its landmark hotel, this is also the home of some of the US Navy SEAL teams, who can be seen working out on Coronado Beach sometimes.

Panorama of Coronado old pier reflecting on in San Diego Bay from Coronado Island, California
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The Hotel del Coronado, which was the world’s largest resort hotel when it opened in 1888, was the place to go for the rich and famous, like Babe Ruth, Edward VIII, Charlie Chaplin, and 16 different US presidents.

It’s also been features in a dozen movies. Take a 75-minute tour through the building and ornamental gardens to get a look at this famous resort.

Then, head to our next stop on this San Diego itinerary. This stop at Coronado should have taken about 2-3 hours.

Embarcadero

One of the best things about San Diego is its closeness to the water. Embarcadero is the perfect spot to enjoy a meal, do some shopping, and take in the views.

Walk along the harbor and see Coronado island right across the bay. If you happen to be visiting in the summer, the San Diego Symphony Orchestra performs from the end of June until September. Also, Waterfront Park has interactive fountains and playgrounds for kids to enjoy.

If you’re wondering what to do in San Diego in 3 days, then here’s what Embarcadero has to offer.

USS Midway Museum

Take a tour of the USS Midway aircraft carrier with a self-guided audio tour. You can climb into cockpits and try simulators to feel like you’re actually flying, as well as check out the below decks areas.

Take a Harbor Cruise

Since you are right in San Diego Harbor, why not take a cruise? You’ll get to see some of the many landmarks of the city, not to mention views from a whole new angle. This will be especially fun on a warm, sunny day. 

SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA USA Coronado ferry boat Embarcadero
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Spot wildlife like sea lions and pelicans. And listen as an experienced guide tells you about the marine habitats and history. Cruises last one hour.

Whale Watching

Another must do in San Diego if you are visiting from December through April is go whale watching. This is the time of year that the California Gray Whale migrates from Alaska to Baja.

These cruises have a naturalist on board as a guide to answer questions.  Cruises can last up to four hours.

That’s about all we can fit into Day 1. This stop at Embarcadero should have taken about 3-4 hours, unless you did the whale watching cruise.

So, get a good night sleep before we start Day 2 at the beach. 

Day 2 in San Diego

Pacific Beach

We’re starting Day 2 at some of San Diego’s best beaches.

Get an early start to watch the sunrise at Pacific Beach, located along Ocean Boulevard just north of downtown. This is a rather tranquil spot compared to other beaches, so a perfect place to enjoy the sea, sand, and sun in the morning.

Crystal pier in San Diego, California
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Take a walk on Crystal Pier and watch waves break. You have a great view of the city and the town of La Jolla from the end of the pier. The beach has lifeguards, so this is a good place to bring kids.

If you prefer a beach with a younger crowd and more of a party atmosphere, then I suggest Mission Beach. This stop at Pacific Beach should have taken about an hour.

Mission Beach

Lined with a boardwalk that has its own small amusement park, Mission Beach is a lot of fun. If you’re visiting in the early hours, then rent a bike and traverse the boardwalk, play some mini golf, have a coffee in one of the lovely gardens, or take the kids to a playground.

Mission Beach Sunset and View of Downtown, San Diego California, USA
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If you want to lay out in the sand, you’ll have plenty of company year round. So long as the weather is good, people will be out at this popular beach spot.

If you stop here at the end of the day, you’ll find a lively atmosphere. Great for solo travelers and couples.

Belmont Park

If you love amusement parks, it will be hard to resist Belmont Park.

Located on the boardwalk, this park has 12 rides, including the Giant Dipper – a wooden rollercoaster that has been named a National Historic Landmark and a favorite of locals. There’s also an 18-hole Tiki-themed mini gold course and eateries. 

Once you’ve gotten your roller coaster fix, let’s head to La Jolla. This stop at Mission Beach and Belmont Park should have taken about 2-3 hours.

La Jolla

This seaside community sits on land that juts right out into the ocean, surrounded by water on three sides. There is lots to do here, from hiking to surfing to exploring sea caves.

La Jolla, California is one of the best places to visit in 2 days
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La Jolla has a very chic, cosmopolitan vibe about it. Filled with boutiques and cafes, it has a different atmosphere from many other parts of San Diego. But it is a great place to add to your San Diego 3-day itinerary.

Stroll down Prospect Street and stop at the Legends Gallery. Here you’ll find original art displayed, including from a former resident, Theodor Seuss Geisel – Dr. Seuss!

Stop for a little while to relax in one of the beautiful parks. If you’re visiting in the summer, the Ellen Browning Scripps Park offers open-air concerts, so you might be able to enjoy some live music, too.

Children’s Pool Beach

Whether you’re traveling with children or not, definitely check out this part of the beach. Because La Jolla’s surf can be powerful, they constructed a seawall to protect an area of beach and make it safe for children to swim in the calmer waters.

Drone view of the Children's Pool in La Jolla San Diego is one of the best things to do in 3 days in San Diego
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An unexpected byproduct was that it was also a prime location for seals and sea lions to come and give birth to their pups. From December to May, they arrive.

Access to the beach is limited for this reason, but you can climb up the seawall to get a great view of these adorable sea animals.

La Jolla Cove

This cove is a must-visit, as one of the most famous on the west coast of the US. The views are gorgeous and definitely Insta-worthy. 

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With tons of sea life in the water and sunning themselves on the rocks, you’ll take some great pictures in this cove.

But I’d avoid swimming because the waves are really strong here. Another option would be to take a bike tour or go kayaking. 

Surfing

There are lots of places to surf, and not just in La Jolla.

About 30 minutes north of the area, you will find Swami’s, which is a popular surf spot. Oceanside and Del Mar are also good choices and less populated. If you need to rent surf gear, each beach has a rental spot nearby.

And if surfing isn’t your thing, then grab lunch at an oceanside restaurant and watch others hang ten while you enjoy your meal.

Then, let’s head north to a beautiful nature reserve to end the day. This stop in La Jolla should have taken about 2-4 hours, depending on how long you spend shopping or at the beach.

Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve

About 15-20 minutes north of La Jolla, you will find Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve.

Broken Hill at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve and State Park La Jolla San Diego California
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This huge, 2000-acre park is home to the endangered Torrey Pine tree. It also consists of eight trails for hiking and walking, empty beaches to relax at, and sightings of gray and blue whales during their migration season. 

This park is also situated on a plateau that offers some really gorgeous views of the water, so make sure you take a moment to breathe in the salty ocean air and take in the scenery.

If you’d like to take a guided walk, they are available on certain days at 10am and 2pm, starting at the visitor’s center. This stop should take about 2 hours.

Torrey Pines Gliderport

For all you adventurers out there: check out the Torrey Pines Gliderport on your San Diego trip. At the edge of the park, you’ll find a platform that is used for hang-gliding and paragliding. They also offer tandem flights for a fee. 

Torrey Pines Gliderport is one of the top places to go in 2 days San Diego
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But this location isn’t just for adventurers. If you just want to check out the views from the cliffs, this is a great vantage point. Benches are situated around the area. 

By this time, you are probably nearing sunset, and this is the perfect place to see it. Enjoy the views, grab dinner, and either head back to the hotel or spend a lively evening at Mission Beach.

Day 3 in San Diego

Point Loma

Our first stop on Day 3 will be the Point Loma Lighthouse, built in 1855.

This is a local landmark and very cool place to tour. Not only do you get great views from this lighthouse, but you can check out the keeper’s quarters and the lens that can see almost 25 miles out to sea. 

Point Loma Tide Pools

If you catch the tides at the right time, you can actually climb down into the pools and look around at the sea caves and ocean life down there when the tide is out. Starfish, hermit crabs, and even octopus have been spotted. 

POINT LOMA, CALIFORNIA is one of the best places to add to your 2-day San Diego itinerary
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After Point Loma, let’s head to the Old Town. This stop at Point Loma should have taken about an hour or so.

San Diego Old Town

The term “Old Town” means something very different in America than it does in Europe. San Diego’s Old Town is actually the site of the first European settlement in the state, from 1820-1870. The neighborhood, its adobe buildings, and the streets are well preserved.

Check out Casa de Estudillo for a lovely example of Spanish architecture.

Presidio Park is a good place to see historic settlements, specialty shops, art galleries, and get authentic Mexican food. There’s even a real-life blacksmith that you can see working at the forge. This stop in the Old Town should have taken about 2 hours.

Mission San Diego de Alcalá 

Head to the Mission San Diego de Alcalá to see the first Franciscan mission in California, established in 1769.

Daily tours are available. See the choir stalls, living quarters of the friars, and the artifacts and tools that came from the Kumeyaay tribe that inhabited the region. This stop should take about an hour.

Liberty Public Market

Visit the Liberty Public Market, which is a fun and exciting town market set up in a former navy building. Lots of fresh food, pastries, and arts and crafts, this is a great stop for lunch and to see where locals and tourists do specialty shopping.

Open 7 days a week from 11am-7pm, you’ll find souvenirs for your trip and great examples of regional cuisine here. This stop at the market should have taken about an hour.

Gaslamp Quarter

When planning 3 days in San Diego, you don’t want to forget the Gaslamp Quarter. Enter through the archway on Fifth Avenue and stroll the 16-block downtown area. Full of eclectic charm, this area has something for everyone.

Gaslamp Quarter in San Diego
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Look over the historic buildings. Stop for a bite at one of the many sidewalk cafes. Check out a movie at the Rooftop Cinema Club – a fourth-floor outdoor movie theater where you can see a flick and the sights at the same time. 

If you come at night, you’ll find plenty of clubs, bars, and breweries, many with rooftop lounges. Visiting the Gaslamp Quarter should have taken about 4-5 hours, depending on what you do while you’re here.

Alternative Day Trips From San Diego

With so much to do in San Diego, it’s hard to fit in the things that are just outside of the city. So, as an alternative to any of the days on this itinerary, here are three great day trips to consider for your vacation.

Day Trip #1: Legoland

Located just 30 minutes from San Diego, Legoland is a great stop if you are traveling with kids. This amusement park is Lego-themed and full of roller coasters and other rides, as well as playgrounds and kid-centered activities. 

Park hours are 10am-5pm daily. Prices range by age, but there is a discount for Go San Diego Pass holders.

Day Trip #2: Pacific Surfliner

The Pacific Surfliner is a great way to travel along the California coastline. The train ride offers amazing views, especially in the stretch right out of San Diego.

You could make a day trip to Los Angeles and use this as your main transportation. The train will even get you to Disneyland in two hours – which is great considering the crazy traffic in this area.

Tip: Sit on the right side of the train if you want to catch the sunset on your way back to San Diego.

Day Trip #3: Mission Trails Regional Park

This huge natural reserve is found at the northeast edge of the city. The sixth largest park in the country, it deserves its own day. 

Here you can enjoy horseback riding, hiking, cycling, and climbing. You can even get up to the highest point in the city for the best views available – the tip of Cowles Mountain is almost 1600 feet up! You have amazing panoramic views from this spot (even if it is a bit of a hike).

Take in the beautiful scenery and natural surroundings, right inside this major US city. 

San Diego is surely one of the best places for a long weekend break in the US. I hope this 3 days in San Diego itinerary will help you plan an amazing trip. There is a lot to see and it is a great location for families, couples, and solo travelers to enjoy nature, the beach, and city life, all in one place. 

About the Author:

This post was written by Rebecca, who runs her own blog at The Journey at Home – where she writes about her life as a mother of 5 with everything that comes along with it. She lived in New York for a long time before she moved to Las Vegas. She also works as a freelancer for Arzo Travels.

 

Safe Travels, Arzo
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